Winter in southern Rajasthan is peaceful. The sun has lost its harshness, and provides a welcomed warmth amidst the cool gentle winds that run across vast fields of wheat, their fresh vivid green in soft contrast with the dustier green of the trees and brush.
I notice none of this as I hurry along a rocky path to the main road, where an eight-seater van full of women from the surrounding villages waits for Khemanibai and me. I’ve just managed to convince Khemanibai to attend the very first women’s health meeting of Aajeevika Bureau, my host NGO, but our car is running late. Very late. Two hours late, in fact, for a two-hour meeting. Twenty women are already waiting at the office for our arrival.
Khemanibai crams herself into the middle row of seats with five other women, and after much shuffling of hands, legs and sarees we manage to get the door shut. I jump into the back of the jeep and squeeze myself onto the floor amid six pairs of feet. Waving off several offers to switch places, I call out to the front of the van, “Hiralalji, we’re all in, let’s go!!”
And we finally start moving. I breathe a sigh of relief; we’re only a handful of kilometers away from the office and should arrive in ten or fifteen minutes. The road is bumpy and the floor is hard, but my energy is on an all-time high as I join in the random chatting in Vaghadi, the local dialect that incorporates both Hindi and Gujarati.
After a few minutes, our car slows to a stop. Unable to see ahead, I assume we’re waiting for a truck or tractor to pass us from the opposite direction (it’s a narrow road). But after several moments and no movement, I sit up on the balls of my feet and peer through the front glass. I see a tractor, some men standing in front of it, and a tree, fallen across the road.
There’s a small, unobstructed strip of road through which the van might have been able to pass, but Hiralalji points to the ditch that the right tires would probably get stuck in if we tried. “It’s not worth the risk,” he says, peering back at me in the rearview mirror.
Several minutes pass by. None of us get out of the car, and the men on the road are still standing and talking to each other. The lines of vehicles in both directions are getting longer. A local jeep with men, women and children overflowing through the doorless sides and perched on top of the canvas roof honks incessantly for a minute or so and falls silent, waiting patiently for the tree to move.
It feels impossible to sit still any longer. I yank the door handle open, scramble out of the car and walk towards the fallen tree, with no real idea of what I should do. My phone, clutched tightly in my sweaty palm, starts ringing – it’s Divya, a fellow team member who is holding down the fort back at the office.
“How far are you?” she asks.
“I’m only a few kilometers away, but there’s a tree blocking the road. I don’t know when it’ll get moved,” I reply.
“Oh no,” she says. “Well, don’t stress, just come back as soon as you can. We’ll get started with the meeting here.”
I glance back at the van, an eight-seater filled with fifteen women. Women, who have left piles of work at home and in their fields to attend our meeting on my request, who now sit quietly in the car, looking at me standing in the middle of the road.
I turn on my heel and walk towards the tree. The men standing nearby stare at me as step over several leafy branches and stop in front of the trunk. I adjust the dupatta on my shoulders, bend down and start pushing the tree with both hands, one of which is still holding my phone.
The tree does not budge.
“It’s not going to move,” one of the men calls out. I look up at him and say, “Maybe you can help me.” I start pushing again.
He comes over and stands next to me. Another man joins us, and we start pushing. The trunk moves a bit, but not much, and when we stop pushing it rolls back to where it was.
They give up. I give up. We step back over the branches. The men return to their group; I stand in front of the tree, staring at it, peripherally aware that all the men are still staring at me with somewhat amused looks on their faces. In the low murmur of their voices I hear the word
I step over the leaves and branches again and reach the trunk. My phone is still in my hand; it does not occur to me to set it down somewhere. I start pushing again, heaving with all my might, barely noticing the branches scraping at my feet as I try my hardest to move the tree. My dupatta slips off one of my shoulders and snags on a branch. I keep pushing. I call out to the men, “Chalo, help me move this!”
Two men join me. Another three join a moment later. Before I realize what is happening, we have lifted the trunk off the road. My hands leave the tree and I quickly crouch to the ground as the trunk soars inches above my head and the men half-heave, half-pitch the tree to the side of the road, where it falls with a crash among crunching branches and rising balloons of dust. The six of us look at the tree for a moment, then at each other. My face breaks into a smile. “Dhaniavaad! Ho gaya!” I yell out cheerfully, and their faces break into smiles as well. I run back to the car, climb into the back and shut the door as Hiralalji shifts gears and drives forward. I’m panting hard as I plant myself onto the floor one more time, unable to contain my smile. All the ladies are chattering away at full speed, their words rushing by so quickly that I can’t understand what they’re saying. But they show me how they’re feeling. One of my good friends’ mother, whose name I don’t know but whom I call Maaji, cups my face in her rough warm hands. Another grabs my wrist and doesn’t let go. Another places her palm on my shoulder, and I am engulfed in smiles and laughter as I sit there, saying nothing.
We reach the office and join the meeting, which runs splendidly. Samosas are served, followed by tea, and soon enough I am waving good-bye to my friends as they return to their villages, with shared promises of meeting again very soon.
Salumbar has returned to its wintry peacefulness for me. But I feel a ripple in the air.
Kinnari Jhaveri, Augist 2009 Indicorps Fellow